Resounding through Manhattan
Today I had the great privilege to join members of Resonanda, Brown University’s medieval music ensemble, for their one-day, unannounced New York tour (before you continue, go to Resonanda’s MySpace page and put on one of their songs as you read). It began—where else—at The Cloisters, the museum in the form of a medieval monastery that John D. Rockefeller shipped over from Europe and plopped in Fort Tyron Park, full of exquisite works both in and inside the architecture. The day had no audience planned, except for the city itself and the few of us who invited ourselves along. The goal was to search for places that could join in, for the silent accompaniment of stone, concrete, and history.
We gathered in late morning and the singers started with a warm-up right outside the museum’s unceremonious entrance. Now be aware that we intended to be cautious. Museum authorities had already warned over the phone that they would be removed if they attempted an unscheduled concert inside. This should come as no surprise—Resonanda’s approach to medieval music is not your pious monk-chanting, aside from a few bars we hummed of “Salve Regina.” They revel in the fleshier side of that period’s song, in vernaculars from Iberia to Hungary, which can make even the worldliest blush. They’re experimental, but tempered by the scholarly rigor enforced by their founder, Stephen Higa, a doctoral student in medieval history. Here’s how Stephen puts it (as only he could):
Resonanda fully believes in the deliciousness of medieval music: it savors the sweetness of lilting melodies, the crunchiness of startling harmonies, and the spiciness of several striking voices blending with raw energy, fervent clarity, and naked devotion.
Hearing their voices in that stone entryway, finding each other’s harmony and ancient elocution, was instantly transporting. From then on, our little group—three singers and as many tag-alongs, including me—was on a different plane from the rest.
The museum was still quiet when we went in, before the rush of Mothers’ Day visitors. We took our time, fully. The herb garden kept us for nearly an hour of careful examination, discovery, and high winds off the Hudson. Inside, among the artworks, time passed just as easily. The group of us collected especially around the most intricately detailed pieces of devotional art, where we pooled our knowledge to make meaning of everything there portrayed. More discoveries, to be sure! The Paraclete in the form of a tiny baby; one of the three wise men with a possibly Jewish hat and a very Jewish beard; one harrowing of hell after another; Thecla, unburned by the fire. The Christian lore of that period, so little of it properly biblical in the literalistic sense that passes for religion today, makes for wonderful hours of sharing stories and wild guesses. While we were lost in deciphering, the rooms became more and more packed. We rushed through the popular Unicorn Tapestries, mulled through the bookstore, and finally settled on the quiet West Terrance for a sing. A few people stopped to listen, but it was mainly us to ourselves, under the clear sky, sounds carried in the wind.
Before long it was time to leave the museum. We found our way to Broadway and headed downtown, our eyes peeled. After filling ourselves with eerie Chinese food at 169th Street, it was down into the subway. First, the tile echo-chamber of the A Train area. For that, the singers chose an old American shape-note tune rather than their usual medieval fare. Next, I led them down to one of my favorite places in the New York City subway system, the 168th Street 1 Train stop. It’s a vaulted, brown-brick tunnel with these great globular lights that make it feel like the 1920s. On the elevated bridge under which the trains pass, Resonanda gave us another medieval song, which ended as the next uptown train arrived.
But that train wasn’t ours. We returned to the speedy A Train and took a downtown to 110th Street, our final stop before the group had to catch a bus for Providence. New Yorkers should know where we were headed—to the magnificent, charred Cathedral of St. John the Divine. There, under the great middle door, atop the stone steps, came the finale. Listening, I dissolved into the steps, watching the otherworldly city buzz by to the sound of what had become my world for the day.
I joined Resonanda for the encore, a song Stephen and I used to sing together often: “Angel Band.”
I’ve almost gained my heavenly home
My spirit loudly sings
The Holy Ones behold they come
I hear the noise of wings
What better way to end and to say goodbye to friends than with a note of aural anticipation?
Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.